Anyone who believes that strength, grit, and power belong solely to men clearly has never met a monument to the American woman, Leona Kelly Varrella.
Her tenacity for life has elevated her to a level not reached by many these days – 100 years and still going strong. She achieved this milestone in December of 2018 and is looking to reach 101 in just a few short months. She was born in Stark, Boone County, a booming lumber town much like many towns that dotted the hills and valleys of West Virginia at that time. She grew up in a family of 14 and over time the family added three more by way of adoption. To say life was tough was an understatement – it was a time when this country was ruled by those fortunate to have more than most, a time when war plagued the earth and the working class families were just surviving from day to day.
Leona was born when women were called pioneers, when endless hours on the farm took a toll from the youthful vigor and made it hard. In the last hundred years, Leona has written her story one day at time in the hearts of those who have had the privilege of coming in contact with her. Her stories of the early days until now could fill a novel that you, the reader, would not want to put down. From politics to business, wars to peacetime, the Depression to landing on the moon, she has lived through it all, from country life to the city life, wild times to settling down. The stories she tells and memories she shares keep you at the edge of your seat laughing or leave you with a sense of longing for a time you could never be a part of. She leaves you with the idea that life isn’t about the years you live but the life that you live from the rising of the sun to the setting of the same. Her life has clearly been an adventurous journey and not lived as the status quo.
Leona had to learn quick and from an early age how to deal with everyday life in a lumber town. Growing up in Boone County she didn’t have much time to enjoy her days of youth, a time when you had to grow up quick because the family depended on it. As she grew older, hopeless times hit her family as often it did in the lumber towns. Her grit and determination dominated and allowed her overcome those odds. At three years old, she had her first near death experience when a swarm of bees attacked her. With the aid of an elderly man who pulled them out of her hair by the handful, she lived to tell the story. She survived two more brushes with death before she moved away. She was bitten by a rabid dog in the early 1920’s and was a hair trigger from being shot with a double barrel shotgun in a child’s game.
Her family moved around from town to town and settled in Kentucky for a time before moving to a farm on the hill near Ivydale. From there, Leona married and moving to Washington DC. Here life got interesting; it was different, it was wild. The night sounds of the country were replaced with the sounds of the chaos of a big city. WWII was beginning and Washington DC was buzzing. After becoming divorced, Leona worked, along with her sister Patsy, in restaurants to survive the madness. Tough times followed her like the fog. She was hit by a car breaking both legs, her pelvis and her collar bone. However, Leona is no ordinary woman. She was born into tough times and this was no different.
Leona went on to meet the man of her dreams, Amelio “Joe” Varrella, a rough and tough Italian or so he thought. As the story goes, Joe owned a taxi company and the rent was due. Joe decided he would skip the rent and take off to live it up. Her sister informed Leona that her husband was taking off with the rent money. Leona, coming out of the shower dressed in a robe and house slippers, proved that a West Virginia girl was nothing to mess with. She jumped on the hood of his taxi as he sped off down Pennsylvania Avenue. Joe was trying to shake her off and radioing the police at the same time. When the authorities caught up with them, she was still hanging on and there was no way he was getting away. The police took him away and gave Leona a ride home along with returning her rent money. This story, like so many others, keeps the listener riveted to their seat. Alas, it would take a novel to write them all. Her life could be portrayed in a Hallmark movie that would inspire you to shape your life by your own deeds. You can make your life a thing of beauty or shame, but you make the choice, not anyone else.
Leona ultimately made Clay County her home in 1966. In her 100 glorious years, she has survived bees, rabid dogs, nearly being shot, being hit by a car, and she is also a cancer survivor. To say her life has been a bed of roses would not be correct by our standards, but to her it has been amazing and still is. Her advice to young women or men these days is that the greatest happenings in your life are made by the simple things and by making the best of your God given abilities. She encourages those around her to use common sense and perseverance, stay away from the things that will eventually cause you pain and make good use of your life. Leona Varrella at 100 is as fresh as the spring air and vibrant as any color one can imagine. Leona attributes her longevity to good parents and Irish and Native American heritage. She is full of the passion that moves her to see what the next day brings. Her spirit is living poetry that brings a sparkle to memories not long forgotten and revives them as if they just happened yesterday. Leona Varrella is the epitome of the American woman and an inspiration to all who meet her. Congratulations on reaching 100 years and we hope you have many more happy and healthy days.